Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

2016 #157
Billy Wilder | 112 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U

Witness for the ProsecutionCharles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich shine in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play (in turn based on her short story), about a man accused of murder but who proclaims his innocence (Tyrone Power), the barrister who decides to take the case (Laughton), and the man’s wife who agrees to alibi him but seems somehow suspicious (Dietrich).

Despite expanding the action from the play, it’s still dialogue-heavy and a little stagey in places — but between the engrossingly labyrinthine plot, those captivating performances, and some humour added by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, such potential criticisms are irrelevant.

Helluva twist, too.

5 out of 5

A new adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution begins on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

The Apartment (1960)

2009 #36
Billy Wilder | 125 mins | download | PG

The ApartmentAn article I once read (but have long since misplaced, unfortunately) asserted that Billy Wilder once said (and I paraphrase heavily here, I’m sure) that, contrary to expectations, when he was feeling happy he’d make a serious picture, and when feeling down he’d make a comedy. Goodness only knows what kind of mood he was in when he chose to make The Apartment, then, because it flits between the two with gay abandon.

It begins almost as a farce, with Jack Lemmon playing up the near-misses inherent in lending your apartment to adulterous men; and though this comedic vein never goes away, the film also develops a dark side. Alongside the affairs and underhand dealings — in which our hero is closely involved — there’s an attempted overdose, discussion of other suicide methods, and respectable men getting divorced. It all seems quite shocking for a film made under the Hays Code, though that was on its last legs (Wilder’s own Some Like It Hot had been released without code approval the year before and still been a huge hit), and Mad Men and its ilk suggest such goings-on by businessmen may not have been so surprising to contemporary viewers either.

On the technical side, Wilder employs long scenes and long takes, but Lemmon never stops bustling through them, always doing something, keeping the film active and moving even when Wilder declines to follow. It’s the latter that makes the former so effective, rendering Lemmon’s character the odd one in an otherwise static world, the one still turning to humour in the face of all life’s bleakness.

Real life always serves up humour alongside tragedy, yet despite that it takes skilled filmmakers to do the same without one lessening the other. Wilder and Lemmon are, of course, among them, and one can imagine few finer examples of such a blend than The Apartment.

5 out of 5

Some Like It Hot (1959)

2009 #2a
Billy Wilder | 117 mins | DVD | U / PG-13

Some Like It HotDid you know that Some Like It Hot is a remake of a 1951 German film, Fanfaren der Liebe? I didn’t. Anyway…

The first (and last) time I saw Some Like It Hot was so long ago that, even when watching it again, there are whole swathes of the film I didn’t recall. How few clothes Marilyn Monroe wears, for one thing. I guess I was quite young first time. The only thing I did remember was enjoying it immensely; and, enjoying it again, didn’t want to skip the chance of handing it five stars in this pathetically brief review.

To be concise, it’s a very funny film even 50 years on. It rattles from situation to situation at an occasionally surprising pace, literally without a dull moment. Not that there’s anything wrong with slower old films, but its certainly spritely for its age.

And with it, a genuine classic. Never mind some — everyone should like it a lot.

5 out of 5

Sorry for the pun.